By Stephen May
NEW YORK CITY – Wayne The fact that he has worked for half a century in California, far removed from the major art publications and critics of the East, has clearly put one of the finest painters of his generation at a disadvantage. The warm reception his current exhibition has drawn around the country suggests that Thiebaud is gaining the kind of delayed recognition accorded earlier to his California colleague Richard Diebenkorn.
“Wayne Thiebaud: ,” comprising over 100 paintings, watercolors and pastels, does full justice to the wide range of the artist’s achievements. Organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and astutely curated by the museums’ associate director and chief curator, Steven A. Nash, it celebrates the artist’s 80th birthday last year.
Thanks to stops in San Francisco, Fort Worth and The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., the superb display has brought Thiebaud’s remarkable and endearing work to the broader audiences and wider critical attention it deserves. The exhibition will be on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the last stop on its tour, through September 23. Funding has been provided by the National Endowment for the Arts.
The show includes, of course, numerous examples of Thiebaud’s famous still-life canvases of everyday objects, especially cakes and pies, painted with a brilliant palette and luscious brushwork. Also on view are splendid, lesser-known, recent paintings featuring San Francisco cityscapes and California landscapes. Much of this new work, undertaken well into the artist’s mature years, reveals an adventurous soul willing to switch gears and take on fresh aesthetic challenges – with amply rewarding results.
It is important to see this exhibition in person if possible because reproductions hardly do justice to the rich, succulent handling of paint that gives Thiebaud’s canvases a palpable physicality. He is, moreover, a great colorist, a quality not always reflected accurately in reproductions.
Born in Arizona in 1920, Theibaud has spent most of his life in California. Inspired by cartoons and comic strips, he became a cartoonist as a teenager, worked briefly as an animator for Walt Disney Studios, and drew a comic strip during a World War II stint in Army Air Force.
Utilizing the GI Bill, Thiebaud took art courses after the war at San Jose State College and California State College in Sacramento. But he is basically a self-taught artist who has studied the old masters and other titans of world art with care and perception. Thiebaud has taught for a half century at the college level, most recently at the University of California at Davis, where he continues to instruct on a part-time basis.
A knowledgeable, witty, articulate and self-deprecating speaker, he is a joy to listen to. In his 80s, he still plays, says Nash, a “mean game” of tennis.
In 1956 and 1957 Thiebaud spent time immersed in the New York art scene, meeting Willem de Kooning and other artists associated with the Abstract Expressionist movement. For a brief time, in works like “Ribbon Store” (1957), he employed bold brushstrokes and vivid colors in a manner reminiscent of the radical East Coast style.
Before long, however, his style became more realistic as he began the series of brilliantly colored paintings of prepared food, consumer goods and everyday objects that put him on the map. Intrigued by the ubiquitous yet anonymous objects of American culture, Thiebaud applied both a wry sense of humor and a colorful precision to depictions of familiar, humble rdf_Descriptions. “Star Pinball” (1962) and “Three Machines” (1963) raised pinball machines and gumball dispensers to unexpected artistic prominence.
Even more famously, his cheerful portrayals of luscious cakes, pies and ice cream, as exemplified by “Confections” (1962) and “Cakes” (1963), both in the exhibition, gained immediate popularity. “Cakes,” in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, is a showstopper.
“Tie Rack” (1969), which shows three rows of colorful ties neatly arrayed on an isolated rack, puts one in mind of the color-stripe art of Morris Louis.
The simple geometric shapes of these works highlighted by intense light and vibrant colors, linked Thiebaud, in the public mind, with the Pop Art movement of the 1960s. Actually, his paintings were quite unlike Pop Art, which often sought to satirize the consumer society and blur the distinction between fine and commercial art.
For one thing, Thiebaud’s bravura brushwork and thick application of paint is significantly different from the slick surfaces and sleek commercial look favored by most Pop artists. In addition, Thiebaud’s paintings grew out of a respectful nostalgia for his middle-class boyhood experiences, evoking simplified aspects of a vanishing scene.
His fond memories of a passing, popular culture are accessible and exceedingly well executed. Rather than adopting the mocking tone of Pop Art, Thiebaud celebrated material objects from the past.
Close examination of these orderly images suggests his concern for the more formal interests of still-life painters, specifically the balance, light and tension between surface arrangement and the illusion of space.
Affinities to the geometric rigor of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, the simplified compositions of Italian still-life artist Giorgio Morandi, and the stark isolation of Edward Hopper’s work are apparent. Thiebaud readily acknowledges a debt, in addition, to artists who are as varied as Vermeer, Chardin, Eakins and de Kooning.
“I am a real visual bandit,” says Thiebaud cheerfully. “I steal from … many people. It depends a little on what I happen to be working on at the moment.”
Whatever the sources, Theibaud’s images of consumer goods are memorable. As Eric Denker, the Corcoran Gallery of Art curator of prints and drawings, has observed, “Great art, as great writing, fundamentally alters our view of the world around us. Once you have seen one of Thiebaud’s brilliantly arranged and colored images, of seemingly humble, everyday objects, you can never view those objects again in the same way.” Denker organized a Corcoran print show earlier this year that demonstrated Thiebaud’s gifted work in etchings, lithographs and monotypes.
In the late 1960s Thiebaud started to focus primarily on the varied landscape of California, executing a dazzling series of out-of-the-ordinary images. “Diagonal Ridge” (1968), featuring a steep incline to which trees and vegetation cling tenaciously, grew out of his familiarity with the dramatic cliffs and bluffs of the Sierra Nevada foothills not farm from his Sacramento home.
After acquiring a house/studio on San Francisco’s Potrero Hill in 1973, Theibaud began a string of innovative urban views inspired by the precipitous hills and dramatic vistas of that city. They clearly reflect the influence of Diebenkorn’s topographical urban images of a decade earlier.
Seeking to capture the singular terrain of the city as well as its special perspectives, Thiebaud often combined different views to create composite cityscapes that reflected the tension and vertigo of the City by the Bay. Later he compressed space, distorted plunging angles of roadways, exaggerated inclines of hills, altered the scale of buildings and changed the size of cars and trees to add drama to his compositions.
The overhead view and changing perspectives in “Hill Street (Day City)” (1981) exaggerate San Francisco’s steep hills, to which structures cling precariously. Thiebaud’s wit – as exemplified by what he called “the most devilish complicated freeway exchanges” in some of his works – help animate these idiosyncratic, stylized city views.
In the 1990s, the septuagenarian artist, unwilling to rest on his laurels, turned to a fresh subject – the waterways and flat agricultural fields of the Sacramento River Delta near his home. Taking on a new challenge, Thiebaud used hot, rich, phosphorescent colors in creating complex, creative, panoramic landscapes.
The brilliantly hued vistas, depicted in large, semi-abstract canvases, reflect a new intensity in the painter’s distinctive use of light, patterns and perspectives. “Waterland” (1996), a bird’s-eye view of cultivated land abutting waterways, is one of a number of the new, kaleidoscopic images in the show.
Praise for the recent works has been widespread and emphatic. The paintings, never before seen in the East are, as curator Nash puts it, “strong and audacious.”
“[Thiebaud] keeps coming up with extraordinary ideas,” says Eliza Rathbone, chief curator at The Phillips Collection, “which … attests … to the richness of his imagination and his love of painting,” as the artist’s old New York dealer, Allan Stone, observed, this new work has “the bravado of a young painter.”
Thiebaud’s willingness to try new subjects, executed with boldness and the sure hand of a still potent, mature artist, makes one look forward with anticipation to future works by the painter, who will be 81 in November.
As his consistently delightful and often stunning display underscores, Thiebaud’s paintings represent a major achievement in Twentieth Century American art. His familiar images of pastries and consumer products continue to make rewarding viewing. His later landscapes, challenging orientation by cleverly mixing the actual and the imaginary, will come as a revelation to many East Coast viewers – and provide lasting memories.
This long overdue, comprehensive exhibition properly reminds us that, throughout his prolific career, Wayne Thiebaud has managed to blend modernity with respect for artistic tradition. Striking a delicate balance between realism and abstraction and employing vivid colors for all their worth, he has created a large body of highly personalized art that guarantees him a lasting place as one of the most important American painters of his generation.
The exhibition catalogue is a handsome, beautifully illustrated volume that includes numerous color reproductions and essays by Nash and critic Adam Gopnik, as well as an artist chronology. Nash’s chapter, which traces Thiebaud’s career, assesses his place in the history of American modernism and the tradition of realism, and examines the wide range of his art historical sources, is especially well done. Co-published by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and Thames and Hudson, the book belongs in any comprehensive library of American art.
The Whitney Museum of American Art is at 945 Madison Avenue. For information, call 212-570-3676.